EPA head Lisa Jackson is prepared for battle
Not many Environmental Protection Agency administrators are likely to belt out a Stevie Wonder tune when discussing the importance of air quality.
"He spends his life walking the streets of New York City/He's almost dead from breathing in air pollution/He tried to vote but there's no solution/Living just enough, just enough for the city."
"I think about that evolution," she added, recounting how many Americans no longer face the same dangers from breathing in the air each day - a change that has brought her agency new challenges and in some senses made it a victim of its own success.
She laughed at her own musical interlude: "That's as emotional as I get."
Jackson's ability to focus on her intellectual priorities has earned plaudits from environmentalists, who see her as one of their most effective champions of public health measures. But it could also put her very mission at risk. As the EPA celebrates its 40th anniversary Thursday, her pursuit of sweeping rules to curb the nation's output of carbon dioxide and other pollutants could trigger a backlash from the newly empowered Republicans in Congress.
"The pendulum could end up swinging back in the other direction," said a White House official from a previous administration who has focused on environmental issues.
The White House is being lobbied hard to rein in the EPA when it comes to several proposals, including those on boilers and smog-forming pollutants. And it is unclear how much influence Jackson wields within the administration, compared with higher-profile environmental officials such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Carol Browner, the White House energy and climate-change adviser.
William K. Reilly, who headed the EPA under George H.W. Bush and admires Jackson, said, "She doesn't have much margin for error."
"The prospects of a standoff, or a decision to defund the agency in a number of areas, I think are pretty large," Reilly said. "Looking ahead in the next two years, it's going to be a hard ship to steer."
By all indications, Jackson - who recalled that as the child of a postal worker, she knew "my biggest asset was having a brain" - will do as she sees fit, despite the political obstacles.
"Before the last election, we should have just been doing our job based on science and the law," she said. "And after this election, we should just do our job based on science and the law."
Jackson, who once mocked the agency she now leads as the "Emissions Permissions Agency," has repeatedly spoken of the need to enforce rules with an eye toward protecting the most vulnerable Americans, including the elderly, poor and minorities, even as others have suggested these measures could cost jobs. Having grown up in New Orleans's Ninth Ward - and taken the wheel to drive her mother, stepfather and aunt out of the city in the face of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed her mother's home - she visited the region repeatedly during the BP oil spill, telling residents that the federal government was acutely aware of their predicament.
Opponents have praised Jackson for her personal style: Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) calls her "my favorite bureaucrat," and she keeps a photo of the senator and his family in her office. But Inhofe is ready to do battle next year on a range of regulations, and several industry officials note that her friendliness and accessibility have not translated into policy outcomes they can embrace.
Cal Dooley, president and chief executive of the American Chemical Council, said regulations that encourage investment in technology to reduce emissions can't be so onerous that they impede investment and the job base in the United States. "We have some concerns that EPA perhaps hasn't struck that right balance," he told reporters in a recent telephone conference call.
Jackson is operating in a very different political moment than her predecessors. When Richard Nixon established the EPA 40 years ago, environmental disasters including the Santa Barbara, Calif., oil spill and contamination in Ohio's Cuyahoga River spurred the country to launch an unprecedented push for new environmental regulations. Congress was in the process of adopting laws regulating the air Americans breathed, the water they drank and a host of other issues - most of which would fall under the new agency's jurisdiction.
But as the EPA seeks to finalize a raft of regulations, on everything from smog-forming pollutants to greenhouse gases and emissions, Jackson stands on notice that the new Congress may clip her powers if she overreaches.
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said this moment should be "a time of reflection" for top Obama officials such as Jackson when it comes to the administration's environmental agenda.
"The public has soundly rejected a lot of the agenda of Congress and, by extension, the Obama administration," Gerard said. "It's time for a course correction; it's time for a policy adjustment."
But Jackson shows little inclination to pull back on the many rules her agency is in the process of finalizing, including new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources such as power plants, oil refineries and chemical plants.
A chemical engineer by training who gave up a short-lived post as then-New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine's chief of staff before moving to Washington, Jackson criticized the EPA under George W. Bush for failing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from autos and light trucks. Now she not only has helped oversee the first federal curbs on carbon dioxide from vehicles but is pushing for tougher air-quality rules on a range of fronts.
"We are back on the job," she said, adding that she hopes to convey that to the public by implementing new rules. "We are here, and having us here is important to your family."
"We have a lot left to do," she added, listing toxic chemical reform among her priorities for the next two years. "Environmental protection doesn't happen just because you pass a law."